arguing with a fire pilot is a lot like wrestling with a pig in the mud: after a while you begin to think the pig likes it.
The late great Don Ornbaum.
From Jim Barnes:
He really did look like John Wayne, except he really did all the stuff the Duke only made movies about. When Big Don meet John Wayne in person on the set of Catch 22, John Wayne came up to Don and said, "I hear you walk like me." Don's reply was, "Then I'll change the way I walk." Many stories were generated by this meeting, but Don said the two of them ended up as friends.
You folks have done a great tribute to a great man.
Here's a great tribute to Don from HIPPY MIKE.
And some feedback already on HIPPY MIKE's page:
You have a very good story posted from Hippy Mike there on the Ornbaum page. I might suggest, however, that the name Carl Dolbeare was omitted from the list of co-pilots. I remember Carl telling many stories of Ornbaum and the B-17 in Porterville, when Carl first got into the industry; that would have been around the early 1970s. The one I remember best is Don wanting a main tire changed out on the B-17 while they went to lunch. The mechanic thought a few more landings might be had out of the old one. Don reached into the forward hatch of the B-17 and came out with a .45 auto. He then walked over and calmly shot the tire in question. Don put the .45 back and went to lunch without a word. He got the tire changed! Don was a champion for pilots' rights, too. One day during a fire bust he inquired about lunches. He was told that he was the home base tanker and they got NO lunches on the government tab while on that base. He waited till the plane was loaded and then taxied over, out of the way, and shut down. As he passed dispatch he yelled something to the effect that they were down for lunch till further notice -- and off they went to eat. Legend has it he got a government-purchased lunch from then on when they were flying. Wish I could remember more of these gems. Ahhhhh, the good old days!
AND FROM THE OTHER MIKE:
Back in the mid-'80s at GJT, we had a break in the fire action one day. All the tankers were lined up on the spare ramp ready to go, while the pilots were all relaxing, telling stories, or taking a nap. I was heading out to my 4Y and was passing a DC-7 piloted by Don Ornbaum. I knew Don a little and had been around him in California some. As I passed his ship, he was at the side door yelling at me to come up the ladder. I did and found the cabin was full of pilots and other ramp personnel shooting the shit and telling the same old stories I had heard a thousand times. Don said, "Glad to see ya, have a seat." There I was sitting on an oil bucket listening to Don tell another story. Everyone was laughing and having a great time when there came a silent moment. Don looked at me and said, By the way, kid, who the hell are you?
Another one: Many many years ago as I was flying a C-172 back East for a friend, I stopped in a small-town airport in the middle of Kansas. The FBO, if you could call it that, was one room just big enough for the owner, two local farmers, and me. After the normal chitchat, they asked what I did for a living. I said I was a tanker pilot, figuring they had no idea what that was, being farmers and such. The first words out of one farmer's mouth was, Do you know Don Ornbaum?
From Dean Talley:
I knew Don on sight and by reputation before I ever spoke to him. I was working as a mechanic in Stockton and flying S-2s in 1984, and I got to sit around and watch Don hold court in one of the lounges set aside for the pilots. He was the man, and wore the mantle comfortably. Later, I had the opportunity to get to know Don well. I flew with him in an S-2 for a few weeks, then spent two seasons based with him at Columbia AAB.
From others I heard the classic Don stories: flying in Arizona and the Air Attack telling him to tag onto a MAFFS drop. The drop started high and climbed from there. Don acknowledged the directions, swooped down and tagged onto the wispy end of the drop and continued the line toward flight levels. I wasn't there but it would be fun to get more details.
He was notoriously hard on co-pilots. He told me when he started flying with Mr. Forbes that he wasn't sure he would make it. "He just took the abuse and wouldn't fight back," he said. "I used to bring the B-17 in real tight abeam the numbers, drop everything, roll into a tight turn, and land. Well, one day I told Bob it's his landing. He brings it in real tight on the downwind and I'm thinking 'you dumb sonofabitch.' I didn't think he'd get it anywhere near the runway. Well, Bob drops everything abeam, rolls it into a turn, and touches down on the end as nice as you please and I figured he'd be okay."
Don was at Hamilton Field in 1938 at the same time as my father. He brought in a yearbook with my father's picture; Don had missed picture day and was absent. Later, he was riding on some sort of training flight over an overcast when the pilot informed the crew he was unsure of his position and gave them the option of staying onboard or bailing out. Don and another man jumped. They landed on the base, went to the chow hall, and had supper. They found the plane a few months later stuck in the side of a mountain.
Don flew the first part of WWII from Australia, having escaped from the Japanese invasion of the Philippines on a fishing boat, with an Englishman, to New Guinea. He told me they walked across New Guinea; I remain skeptical.
He told me he was shot in the ass in the cockpit of his B-17. "It felt like I got stuck in the ass with a hot poker." He lost his pet monkey when he ditched another B-17. As I recall he told me he had been shot down twice in the war.
"When I came home on leave, my brother and I got together and we'd get drunk. Well, my dad, he kicks us out. 'Big hero, home on leave, and what do you do, get stinking drunk, disgusting,' he says. "Well there's this whorehouse over in Covello, so Carl and I go over there. We go in and talk to the head momma and explain that we want two of the fattest, ugliest, most wretched creatures she can produce. We all get in the car and head for home. Well, these girls are having one hell of a time, all drunk and giggling -- they ought to have been having fun, must have cost us fifty dollars. My mom, she was always trying to explain the difference between a good girl and a bad one. Well, we showed up at the front door and knock. When Dad opens it, he just looks at us and tells us to get the hell out of there and slams the door. Best time I ever had in my life."
"I was out spraying this field one day, and there's this highway patrolman standing on the road right next to the field where I'm working and he just won't move. Well, I work all around him and do everything I can think of to get him to move, and he just stands there. Well, I'm just spraying some herbicide that won't hurt anything, so I make my pass and just spray the shit out of him. After I land back at the strip, here comes this cloud of dust with a highway patrol car at the front of it. Well, this guy gets out all covered with shit and starts telling me all the bad things he's going to do to me. I let him says his piece, then I tell him he's got about 10 minutes to live unless he gets to a doctor. 'First, you'll start to sweat. Then your eyes dilate, your skin turns yellow, and your blood turns to shit. You'll get real nauseated just before you pass out. Well he was starting to sweat already, so he jumps back in his car and heads for town. Well, I call old Doc Jones, and explain the situation. 'In a couple of minutes there's a highway patrolman goin' to show up. He thinks he's goin' to die. How about you give him a shot in the ass with something?' So when this guy shows up, Doc has him drop his drawers, and he gives him a shot and tells him he'll be all right. Well, then he goes to his superior, whom I've known for years, to try and get me. Old Ray, he gives me a call and asks what the hell is going on. I tell him what happened and he thinks that's about the funniest thing he's ever heard."
I don't know why Don gave up flying the DC-7 and ended up in the S-2. He said the S-2 was the worst airplane he had ever flown. He was supposed to have gone to Mexico to fly a Dromadier, but like a lot of plans in the tanker business, it didn't pan out. Of the Dromadier he said, "It's not big enough to do any good. So I can just go around and please myself." I told him it sounded a lot like sex. He thought that was pretty funny.
"Old Ralph Ponte used to fly an F-15. I was flying an F-7, and it looked to me like that F-15 didn't wanna go too good. So I'd ask old Ralph and he'd say, 'That Bear will go.' Old Ralph was a man of few words. He'd sit for hours down at Porterville and just stare out at the hills, then get up and start walking to his airplane and tell the ranger, 'You got a fire.' Sure enough, there's be a white wisp of smoke and off we'd go. Then we were all over at Hollister one day, and I was flying a B-17, and my co-pilot says old Ralph just crashed off the end of the runway. Well, I just kept taxiing out to take off, and that co-pilot's all upset I'm gonna take off, and my friend just crashed. Well, I tell him there ain't nothing I can do for Ralph, and we went back to the fire. But Ralph came out okay. I asked him later what happened and he just said, 'That Bear didn't go.' I asked him what he did after he crashed. 'I got out of the airplane. When I figured it wasn't going to burn, I went back and made sure all the switches were in the right places.'"
"Like all accidents, you can't go home till the paperwork is done, and this was no exception. Ralph resisted, but they told him he had to say something. His official statement was, 'Aircraft failed to become airborne.' You know a few years ago, I talked to the junk dealer that hauled that plane away, and he told me the right wheel was froze up. I never told Ralph. He probably still doesn't know what happened."
I could go on and on and on; enough for now. I just scratched the surface. Anybody else want to have a go?
A couple of Ornbaum stories from Dana Peirson:
Well, THERE I WAS, back in 1989, pregnant and in need of work my fire experience was Helitack, but that pilot certificate cemented my fate and I ended up at the Stead Tanker Base as the Assistant Base Manager (F being the manager). Anyway, Ornbaum was our contract pilot; I had never met him and before he even came on contract the stories were abundant - as were the warnings: He'll try and push you around, he is very gruff, he is this, he is that, be careful.
So then he shows up - and here's this John Wayne larger-than-life guy, who was exceptionally kind - soft spot for pregnant women, perhaps. Nothing at all like I had been told, he was one of those Teddy Bear kind of guys. He had my heart immediately.
We had a fire in the area that was reported late in the day, so the Feds decided we needed to keep the tanker on. Well, F and I march out there (or she marched and I waddled) to inform Don that he's extended for this new fire. He points out that he does not go to a new fire at dusk that he hasn't been to before. I am thinking Okay, that makes sense. But the discussion ensues, "You are on until we release you," and his "I might as well be off, because I am not going." This is repeated as we walk toward and then up into the DC-7 where F is still saying, "You're on till we say so," and Don reaches up into the bulkhead, pulls out a bottle of Ten High and takes a big gulp, and proclaims, "I'm off now." I could hardly keep from laughing out loud. Classic Donald.
Another time he was in Minden and something pissed him off - imagine that - so he heads up to the Tanker Base and is ranting and raving to LS about whatever it was that was bugging him. Well, our L turns to him and says nice and sweet, "Mr. Ornbaum, has anyone ever told you that you have the most beautiful eyes?" Our Don was speechless. He turned three shades of red and headed out the door. Now that we women had his number, all we had to do was flatter him or flirt with him. So the fun began - mushy Valentines, birthday cards, love notes, winter phone calls and messages.
One last fond memory which always makes me smile in the afternoon Don would take naps; my oldest daughter was about a year and a half that summer, and they would nap together. Somewhere I have an adorable picture of them asleep years later he would always ask me, "Hey, how's that daughter of yours I used to sleep with?"
Yeah, I miss him too.
If you've got any Ornbaum stories or memories to share,
please send 'em to us.